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The annual REAL Christmas letter

One of my favorite traditions for a decade has been to sit down and try to write a REAL Christmas letter.  Not just the highlights, but a few honest moments as well. It started as a joke with one of my friends, thinking how refreshing it be for people to share more than just their perfect lives that we are used to seeing on Facebook and Instagram. It would be way more truthful and a whole lot more entertaining.
Last new year, I had a friend ask me to come up with a word for 2018. I joked that my word was just going to be “done”. I was partly kidding, partly serious. The year ahead seemed daunting rather than full of promise and resolutions.  I had so many things to finish in the upcoming year that I needed to be “done” with: my degree, my job and my thirties. A few weeks later, my friend showed up with one of those string bracelets with the metal word “done” hammered in the middle. I wore it often, especially in those home stretches. Not taking it off until I had my last chapter written. Until I passed my defense. Until my paper cleared the dissertation office.
It wasn’t just gradschool. I loved my job, but was ready to move on to something new. I needed a push to get me to fill out application after application and apply for new roles rather than the comfortable place I was in.  Throughout the year I continually reminded myself to be done with the daunting tasks, hard things, draining relationships, the car I hated and extra pounds I carried. Of course, some of those things were harder to get through and break up with than others (and many I am still working on)….but it was a great one word reminder to tackle the hard things.

It wasn’t just school that has consumed me for the last four years, but chronic pain. This year has brought me a huge reprieve. I have been able to cut the meds way back I have parts of my life back that were lost. My body occasionally reminds me of it’s trouble, but for the most part I feel like the old me. I don’t know if that part of my life is done or if we are just on a break. Either way I will take it as an amazing gift.

One of the weirdest things to be done with this year was Saturday soccer games. Owen is on the tennis team and Tess played her last game in the Spring. I have spent ten years of Saturdays trying not to yell at refs and looking for matching shin guards. This new Saturday freedom is bittersweet. Tess has decided that horseback riding was her true calling (for now). Owen is doing great on the tennis courts. I am less than sold on the riding lessons partly for the price and also for the smell. Owen has also joined yearbook. I am not sure he ever gets his pages turned in, but he loves to check out a camera and take pictures at school events. He is not afraid to move around and get the shot….which occasionally makes him just as entertaining as whatever he is photographing on stage. I considered getting him a fancy camera for Christmas, but since he has lost three lunch bags and left his phone on the bus twice this year -- I think we will let him fund that one himself. Eighth grade is a huge improvement over last year. That being said, I still have to remind him to brush his teeth and wear deodorant almost daily. He is acing math and science but I think it might take a miracle to find anything in his backpack. As I type Owen is fishing. He could fish all day, every day and not even miss the dumb videos on his phone that he watches. Mansfield isn’t exactly know for our “fishing spots” most of the time he doesn’t catch anything. He is persistent, patient and content to be doing what he loves. I’m not that into fishing...but those are good ideals for all of us to catch.
He is small, the smallest, but rarely goes unnoticed in a room, and not just because his shirt doesn’t match. He is smart and funny and always moving. I remember when I was his age that I always wanted to stand out. To be the smartest, prettiest, best athlete, best musician. The anything-est, at least the kind that doesn’t get you made fun of. I wasn’t of course, even though I had it pretty easy for middle school. Owen is the small-est. We’ve been to all the specialists. He has passed out from blood work, had xrays, biopsies, full body bone scans and exams he’d probably like to forget. All of them turned out fine. Normal. He is just small. I’ve watched him handle this with a mother’s concern. Wondering if he has people to eat lunch with, if he gets shoved in lockers or bullied. I’m sure that junior high is no peach for a barely 80lb teen, but he seems to handle it with grace. He stands up for himself when I wonder what to say and who to say it to. I still worry, try to shove gluten-free food down him and silently cheer when his jeans turn into high waters. I am learning from him that growth (and an organized binder) don’t look the same for everyone.

Tess is very much the opposite of her brother and almost the same size. She also aces math and science but just brought home an “amazing author” award. (Maybe someone in this family will get published). Like every other preteen girl, 2018 brought us a lot of homemade slime. She would write me shopping lists that included shaving cream, glitter, borax and gallons of glue. Everything she could get her hands on was covered in goop. Thankfully, we have moved on from the slime and are waiting to see what the next phase will be. So far not much as stuck (except for all that glue). She is trying to figure out who she is and what she loves (other than horses). Tess is ten, but sometimes I look at her and see her at seventeen. Sometimes I look at her and see me. The emotions are all over the place and I am afraid of what is to come. Ten is hard. I am not sure I will be able to navigate thirteen! She is quiet at school but fiesty at home. She often disagrees just for fun and has a response or an excuse to everything. Last week she said she might want to be a lawyer when she grows up….so I will count all these fighting words, debates and and verbal strategy as career practice. For her birthday we went to New York City and it was all the things. It would have been a dream or cheesy tween movie except for the food poisoning bit where I spent all night cleaning up her puke. The Crowne Plaza did not know what hit them….and I have never been more thankful for housekeeping. We did a tour of Central Park, ate pizza, dumplings, candy, cake from Carlo’s bakery (ok, well now I am starting to see why maybe she got sick) ...went to the top of the Empire States Building, took the ferry past the Statue of Liberty, went the wrong way on the subway, had great seats for Wicked, and toured the NBC studio at Rockefellar center. We did our best to get on the Today show. We missed our moment of fame, but she now asks to stay up and watch Jimmy Fallon - so I call that a win. What it comes down to was this - I took a trip with my kid and had a completely enjoyable time. I My kids have hit ages where they are fun. They can carry on conversations, get some of my humor, sing along to songs a like and watch movies that do not involve talking animals. I still ground them, yell at them (and then feel bad about it), make them do chores, get so frustrated that I occasionally have to walk around the block, but they are turning into pretty fun people that I want to be around. Like the musical Tess and I saw, they are both changing me for the good.

I never traveled in college, so when A&M offered a writing intensive in Costa Rica I packed my bags. I hoped the trip would help push me to graduate a bit sooner and I could say I had been to the rainforest (biology teacher bragging rights). We stayed in the middle of the forest, the howler monkeys waking me up each morning. I typed and analyzed data, but I also hiked up a volcano, took a raft trip under the trees constantly looking up for sloths and snakes. I toured cocoa and coffee farms. I ate the best bananas pulled straight from the tree. I hiked through the forest to an amazing waterfall and back to my bunk at night through the clouds (always on the lookout for vipers). It was beautiful and noisy and full of adventure. My own family didn’t make it out of the country, but we spent time at our favorite places - the beach and the mountains. My kids are rooted in each of those places -developing equal tastes for salty water and fresh mountain air.

Shaun’s woodworking hobby has only grown. I’ve caught him during his lunch break covered head to toe in sawdust. His smells permanently of wood stain, our home is filled with beautiful things -- all with his personal touches. Last night we had some friends over and all the chairs at our new Shaun-made kitchen table were filled. The table (for a brief time free of any marker, paint or glue stains from our youngest maker) was littered with paper plates, cups and laughter. This table, just a bit bigger than the one before ...making even more space in our home for anyone who wants to gather there. Lately without papers to grade or write, I have noticed the amount of time he spends staining, sawing, shaping. He is continuing to shape our home and I am inspired by his passion and attention to the craft.

I left the classroom and took a job as science coordinator. Which mostly means that a good portion of my fall felt like I was doing something new and scary every day. I’m still learning, but the overwhelming newness is starting to fade. It is a big shift that has been hard in many ways - but one that I am loving. It is weird for after eighteen years in the classroom to not have a first day of school. I miss the students, but praise Jesus that I do not have to ever grade another paper.

Just a few weeks ago I officially graduated. It felt like running a really long race that was never going to end. In all honesty, there were several times I wasn’t sure I would make it. The first few years I struggled through papers and articles in deep chronic pain. Reading through a haze of medication that made my brain feel thick, slow and oh so tired. In the middle I felt behind my peers. I wondered if maybe my best wasn’t going to be enough. But here is the thing - the chance to go back to school was a gift from my parents. And this time around I understood the cost of this gift and opportunities it could provide me. I wrote paper after paper. I edited and cracked the spine on my APA manual. I sent emails, I checked in and I made it through only with the help of a few friends in my same program who pushed and encouraged me (oh -- and my husband holding down the fort while I locked myself in my office). Only a small handful of my cohort has finished. More than anything I say I got a degree in perseverance. Not too many years ago I struggled with hope. It felt slippery and loose despite my best attempts to hold onto hope in Christ as my body seemed to betray me. Romans 5 talks about suffering produces perseverance,  perseverance, character and character hope. Well...I’m not sure Paul was talking about grad school….but I think I have found my hope.

2018 was one of the best years, but it wasn’t all cake. My father had surgery to remove cancer and struggled to recover. A friend moved on. My own kids struggled in their own ways and I wasn’t sure how to best help them. But it has mostly been a dream. Birthdays, travels, graduations and a new job. So many things have finished.
I have thought of that tiny word I started with this year - done.
I have used it to remind me to work, push, strive, end, say no.
This year may be almost finished and had felt so big and daunting -- but in retrospect so full of accomplishment, adventure and new. I may have clung to the word “done” in 2018…. but in so many ways things are just beginning.
Here’s to 2019 and what is to come.


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My annual REAL Christmas letter

One of my favorite traditions for a decade has been to sit down and try to write a REAL Christmas letter.  Not just the highlights, but a few honest moments as well. It started as a joke with one of my friends, thinking how refreshing it be for people to share more than just their perfect lives that we are used to seeing on Facebook and Instagram. It would be way more truthful and a whole lot more entertaining. I don’t set true New Year’s resolutions, because I know that I will eventually break them, but I always reflect this time of year and set a few goals. In this case, “few” might mean dozens. Last January, however, my only goal was to make it through the Spring semester. I had my first internship, my last true graduate class (that seems to be a lie because I keep having to turn in papers) in addition to my normal day job, two kids and a condition that can set me back for weeks at a time. I bought a calendar and used it religiously. I crammed extra hours into my work day by eating …